For the past few years, the Hungarian government under authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has overtly courted the American right, wooing the kinds of anti-democratic forces buoying former President Donald Trump. This past week, those efforts seemed to pay off. And Orbán, easily the most autocratic figure in the European Union, scored arguably his biggest coup to date — and showed precisely the direction the Trumpian base is ready to move in.
The Hungarian government under authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has overtly courted the American right.
Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson — a regular promoter of everything from political and scientific disinformation to white nationalist talking points — arrived in Budapest on Monday, where he promptly began yukking it up with Orbán. According to Carlson, who broadcast from Budapest all week and is a speaker at a far-right conference over the weekend, his trip is all about shining a light on Orbán’s achievements over the past decade.
“If you care about Western civilization and democracy and families and the ferocious assault on all three of those things by the leaders of our global institutions, you should know what is happening here right now,” Carlson said on the show.
For anyone who’s followed Hungary’s trajectory under Orbán, Carlson’s paeans to the country’s supposed “democracy” are laughable. Under a decade of Orbán’s rule, Hungary has transformed from a bright spot of political freedoms to a cautionary tale in how a right-wing authoritarian can dismantle a democracy, piece by piece, while helping his cronies profit along the way.
Pick any metric you’d like, and Hungary’s self-proclaimed “democracy” hardly survives scrutiny. Look at press freedoms, for instance. Not only has Orbán’s government crafted a domestic propaganda machine that would rival autocracies anywhere, but earlier this summer Reporters Without Borders named Orbán an “enemy of press freedom” — the only European Union leader to be put on the list, which places him in the same infamous company as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Or look at the culture of corruption and elite predation that Orbán has fostered. Not only does Transparency International now rank Hungary lower than dictatorships like Belarus or Cuba in its Corruption Perceptions Index, but the government in Budapest has transformed into little more than a vehicle for pillaging. From systemic fraud that funnels billions to regime insiders to corruption among Orbán’s inner circle, Hungary has, as nonprofit human rights advocacy organization Freedom House wrote, “evolved into a crony capitalist state par excellence.” What does this mean? As The Atlantic reported, “nobody can be rich in Hungary without having some relation” to Orbán.
Even Carlson’s claim that Hungary is some kind of bulwark of “Western civilization” — that it’s some outpost of religious conservatives who are simply protecting faith and family — is a farce. The country is hardly a bastion of Christianity; at last check, Hungary had as many “highly religious” citizens as did places like notoriously socialist Norway and even less than liberal bastions like the Netherlands. Likewise, Orbán’s Hungary is routinely the most pro-Chinese member of the European Union — a relationship that carries any number of security and corruption concerns with it.
If anything, the notion that Hungary supports “Western civilization” stems directly from the kind of bigoted policies that many far-right, traditionalist Americans would like to see replicated in the U.S.; as MSNBC’s Zeeshan Aleem noted, Orbán is “a social traditionalist who has banned gender studies at universities and shot down the legal recognition of trans people.”
Any way you look at it, Orbán and his claque have effectively flipped the country from a burgeoning democracy into something far darker.
Any way you look at it, Orbán and his claque have effectively flipped the country from a burgeoning democracy into something far darker and something far closer to the mafia states in places like Russia or Kazakhstan — places where fealty to the leader, and a willingness to target all those who’d oppose his rule, is all that matters. To see the consequences of such a pivot, look at the ongoing Olympic drama surrounding Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who is now seeking asylum in Poland after criticizing her coaches led to threats to her safety. As Freedom House summed up last year, Orbán’s government has “dropped any pretense of respecting democratic institutions.” (Not that Orbán would necessarily disagree: The prime minister famously called for “illiberal democracy” in his country of nearly 10 million.)
But then, maybe there’s nothing surprising about Carlson’s visit. After all, Trump and his supporters have proved only too happy to mimic Orbán’s authoritarian steps over the past few years. Trump called for the jailing of political opponents, pressured foreign governments to fabricate “dirt” on his rival and encouraged an insurrectionist riot on Jan. 6. As we’ve continued learning, Trump is also the first sitting president who ever attempted to overturn the results of a presidential election — and the will of the American electorate.
In many ways, Trump and Orbán are birds of an autocratic feather. This helps explain why Carlson — who regularly regurgitates far-right talking points and who often seems to harbor disdain for both nonwhite Americans and American democratic principles, despite his protests to the contrary — showed up in Budapest to glad-hand Orbán and praise the Hungarian leader’s supposed achievements.
Yet while Carlson is now one of biggest names to publicly extol Orbán, he’s simply following in the steps of those who have rushed to Orbán’s defense before him. Former Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, perhaps the most outspoken defender of white nationalism in modern congressional history, praised Orbán’s anti-immigrant rhetoric in 2017. American white supremacy supporters have in recent years further described Orbán as a “hero of Western Civilization,” with right-wing cretin Steve Bannon dubbing Orbán “Trump before Trump.” Orbán’s government even went so far as to pay far-right American Twitter trolls to whitewash its authoritarian policies.
The reasons for such praise run the gamut, from Orbán’s willingness to malign immigrants and refugees to his outward efforts to target members of the LGBTQ community — and, of course, to his willingness to dismantle the aspects of Hungarian democracy he does not like, brick by brick, policy by policy. As the Washington Post columnist Ishaan Tharoor wrote, “Orbanism represents the fever dream of the American right.”
He’s exactly right. From targeting migrants to inflaming an ethnonationalist base, from attacking the press to whipping up nativist conspiracies, from ushering in unprecedented corruption to tearing down basic democratic protections, Trumpism is increasingly indistinguishable from Orbánism. And Carlson singing the praises of both offers a clue about which direction many of Trump’s most outspoken backers would like to see America drift toward. At the very least, Carlson’s visit represents one more step toward normalizing these types of ideologies, both abroad and at home.
Casey Michel is a journalist who covers financial transparency, illicit finance, and kleptocracy. He is the author of the forthcoming book “American Kleptocracy.” Follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.